Was an overworked flight crew behind the Flydubai crash?

A former airline employee says the airline's scheduling practices often leave crew members exhausted, with back-to-back flights and infrequent days off taking their toll on pilots.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Emergencies Ministry members work at the crash site of a Boeing 737-800 Flight FZ981 operated by Dubai-based budget carrier Flydubai, at the airport of Rostov-On-Don, Russia on Sunday.

Saturday's fatal Flydubai airplane crash that killed all on board may have partially resulted from the airline’s overworking of its employees, a former Flydubai captain told a Russian state-owned news outlet.

The crash, which killed Flydubai Flight 981’s 55 passengers and seven crew members, is undergoing a probe by the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC), Russia’s aviation authority.

The crash occurred in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the destination of the flight from Dubai. Amid high winds, the crew of the Boeing 737-800 attempted a landing at the Rostov-on-Don airport after several hours of holding above the runway. The crash may have been caused by a phenomenon known as wind shear, with rapidly changing wind currents that forced the plane into a rapid dive.

“By all appearances, the cause of the air crash was the strongly gusting wind, approaching a hurricane level,” said Rostov's Gov. Vasily Golubev, according to The Associated Press. Located about 650 miles south of Moscow, Rostov-on-Don is the central city of the province of Rostov, in Russia’s Southern Federal District.

The IAC reported that the flight recorders from the plane were badly damaged, but those involved in the inquiry say they still hope that it will be possible to extract data.

“Memory has already been retrieved from the black boxes. It's being worked on,” an IAC representative told Reuters. “The decoding of the two black boxes may take between several weeks and several months.”

While bad weather is the official cause of the crash, officials hope the black boxes could shed more light on why the aircraft's crew attempted to land in the inclement conditions and if the jet malfunctioned in any way before the crash.

In addition, a former Flydubai employee says that the airline’s employee scheduling policy may have been a contributing factor in the plane going down.

Everybody at the company has these dangerous shifts from day flight to night flight, and then back to a day flight, and then back to a night flight, and it has definitely been a big issue for a long time,” the former Flydubai pilot told RT, a news outlet funded by Russia's government. “They do not allow pilots to get the right amount of rest, or the proper rest before a flight, and that is exactly what both of these pilots were, the situation that they were in, for sure.”

A flight log obtained by the source, detailing Flight 981 co-pilot Alejandro Cruz Alava’s schedule, showed that he had worked 10 out of 11 days leading up to the crash with several back-to-back flights. Additionally, pilot Aristos Socratous had announced his resignation from Flydubai before the incident, while citing “no complaints or problems” with the airline.

The RT article said that reports of Flydubai pilots falling asleep are common, and that the airline shames pilots who complained of tiredness or overwork.

“[T]he way that an airline like Flydubai rosters their pilots, it’s not safe. It’s not safe at all,” the RT source said.

While Flydubai’s treatment of employee fatigue is unconfirmed, the RT report raises more questions about airline pilots in the wake of crashes such as this or the 2015 Germanwings crash. The mental stability of that flight’s pilot is considered a major cause of that disaster.

Flydubai's CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith asked for patience while the investigation continues.

“We share the desire to get answers as quickly as possible but at this stage we must not be drawn into speculation,” he said in a company statement. “We would ask that the investigating authorities are given the time and space they need to report definitively on the causes of the accident.”

An investigation into the Germanwings incident led to official recommendations that pilots’ mental health be more closely monitored while flying. Further results from the IAC and its partners in the probe could yield similar guidance regarding pilot treatment and scheduling.

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